Penn State Riots and the Purpose of Education

Gregory Dunn

July 1, 1998

America’s college campuses are once again aflame. But, in the 1990s, the riots are not fueled by politics, as they were in the 1960s, but by malt, barley, and hops.

This weekend’s 2 1/2 hour drunken riot at Penn State—with fourteen injured police officers, twenty arrests, and $50,000 of damage—is only the most recent in a spate of campus unrest. Michigan State University experienced a comparable event in May when university officials banned alcohol from a popular campus party hang-out. Similar riots have occurred this year at the University of Connecticut and Washington State University. Indeed, this May The Chronicle of Higher Education released a survey showing that alcohol arrests rose 10 percent in 1996, the fifth straight year of increase.

College and university officials’ responses have been predictable. After the Penn State riot, State College Police Chief Tom King declared, “This is another example of the problem associated with alcohol abuse. Without alcohol, this situation would never have occurred.” Thus, nationwide, colleges and universities have stepped up their efforts toward alcohol awareness programs (one wonders if students are perhaps a little too aware of alcohol), alcohol-free dorms, and substance abuse programs.

Such efforts are laudable but miss the root causes of these riots and, therefore, will have a nominal effect on quelling them. But discovering these root causes would raise some uncomfortable conclusions indicating that a great deal of the blame lies not with beer-swilling students but with ideological professors and complicit administrators.

In those earlier riots of the 1960s, students giddy with the radical politics of the left besieged their campus’ administrations and demanded that their curriculum reflect not the traditional concerns of education but, rather, the ideology of the new liberal politics. Administrators—in fear and to their shame—capitulated to this radical agenda. As these students moved through the system, earning higher degrees, obtaining teaching positions, and receiving tenure, the study of the good, the true, and the beautiful was replaced with that of class, race, and gender. Thus the academy became politicized as education was replaced with indoctrination; today, students are encouraged not to pursue the truth but to conform to an ideology.

Our condition today is worlds away from what education was once thought to be. Many colleges still claim to offer a “liberal arts education,” an old-fashioned term the original meaning of which has been, by and large, lost. The “liberal” in the liberal arts is here used not in its contemporary sense—as when we speak of liberals and conservatives in politics—but in its older sense of “freedom.” Thus, a liberal arts education, rightly understood, is one that is freeing; that is, it teaches one how to rule himself and so frees him from the bondage of an immature and untempered will.

Further, a liberal arts education is one appropriate for a free man or woman, for one who is a citizen. So, in addition to teaching one how to rule himself, such an education prepares one for the high and hard responsibilities of citizenship. Surely the stability of a democratic republic, where all are equal citizens, depends on the liberally educated.

Today, these notions are mostly absent from the halls of higher learning. We have ceased to educate young men and women—to teach them the highest things of human life and thus to enable them to rule themselves and to conduct themselves as responsible citizens. Rather, we subject them to the trivial, to the politicized, and to the brute power games of a postmodern culture.

So, why be surprised when the highest aim of our students is to drink as much beer as they can as often as they can wherever they can? If we expose them to infantile teachings, we ought not be surprised when they behave like infants. If we present to them barbarous subjects, we should not be shocked when they act like barbarians. If we do not teach them to rule themselves, we have no right to be indignant when they prove to be unruly. The truth is, the drunken rioters of Penn State have proven to be excellent students, learning precisely the lessons that have been taught them.

Gregory Dunn is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.